DANIA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — As departing airliners roared overhead, an aging vervet monkey moped down a mangrove branch on a recent afternoon in the woods he calls home near a South Florida airport, his ego bruised.
Mikey, as his human watchers call him, has long been the laid-back alpha male of a troop of monkeys ruling this stretch of land, nestled on a busy runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. But that day he lost when he was challenged by a fiery youngster named Spike. Mikey ran away screaming and was now staring sullenly at the humans watching him from 15 feet away.
“Did you have a bad day? asks Deborah “Missy” Williams, a science professor at Lynn University who has been studying the troop and others nearby since 2014. She’s also the founder of the Dania Beach Vervet Project, which seeks to preserve this unique colony. “We’ll leave you alone so you can think.”
The United States has no native monkeys, but little vervet monkeys have been roaming Dania Beach since the late 1940s after a dozen brought from West Africa fled a breeding center and a zoo on the edge road now closed for a long time. Today, 40 descendants are divided into four troupes living in the 1,500 acres around the airport. Florida also has a few colonies of escaped macaques and squirrel monkeys.
Florida wildlife officials often kill invasive species to protect native animals. But they tolerate the vervets, if they stay put. The monkeys are local celebrities, their woes detailed by TV and newspapers, and popular visitors to nearby workers, who feed them despite signs saying it’s illegal.
“My friends are like, ‘Do you have monkeys at your job?'” laughed airport parking attendant Harlen Caldera, handing them raisins and nuts. Some ate from her hand, while others snatched the food she scattered.
Travelers are often surprised to see the monkeys. They squeal with delight and grab their cell phones, hoping for pictures. Vervets are gray and black with a greenish tint, which helps them blend into the trees. Males typically reach 2 feet and 15 pounds; females reach 18 inches and 10 pounds. They live for about 20 years.
Caldera and his colleagues protect the monkeys, who are unafraid of humans, by making sure no one tries to catch them or harm them. “You never know what people are going to do,” she said.
The entrance to the 16 acres ruled by Mikey, the Snow White matriarch and their troupe is at the back of the parking lot, sealed off with a locked fence. The mangroves are thick and the trail muddy except where it is covered in shallow water.
Williams began studying monkeys while doing a doctorate at Florida Atlantic University and stayed. As she and her guests headed deeper into monkey realm on a recent afternoon, the 16-member troupe approached. The colony lives on spiders, ants, lizards, seeds and flowers – when not munching on people’s food.
“They quickly learn to adapt to a human diet — they like sweet things and salty things,” Williams said, noting that they tolerate human food remarkably well.
In Africa, vervet monkeys are eaten by leopards, eagles and snakes. But in Florida, the dangers are outside the mangroves — mostly cars and trappers, who sell them as pets.
Because of their small population, Williams worries that inbreeding could harm the health of the monkeys. In Africa, male vervets leave their natal pride when they reach sexual maturity at age 5 and join another. They move again every few years. With only four local troops, there is not enough rotation among the males, reducing the gene pool.
Because the monkeys are an invasive species, Florida places strict restrictions on how Williams’ group can help them. Trapped monkeys cannot be released – they must be euthanized or placed in captivity.
Since Williams does not believe that monkeys should be pets, she does not seek veterinary care for seriously injured or sick monkeys, hoping that nature will heal them. But his group builds an enclosure for the vervet monkeys captured to be treated or because they have strayed too far.
Ultimately, Williams wants Florida to allow the captured vervets to be released. Unlike Burmese pythons, iguanas and other invasive species, she argues, the colony does not harm the environment.
“The lives of the monkeys matter, whether they’re native or not,” she said. “All options must be exhausted to avoid euthanasia.” His models show that without change, the colony will die within 50 years.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission responded that while the colony may remain, no exceptions allowing release of the monkeys after capture can be made because their effects on the ecosystem are “not well understood”.
“There is also an inherent risk of injury when handling wild animals. Monkeys can act defensively and may bite or scratch. Mammals, including vervet monkeys, can harbor diseases transmissible to humans, including rabies,” the statement said.
As night approached, the troop moved from the mangroves to the airport parking lot. It’s dinner time and there are seeds to gather and worker treats to get. Some were playing while others were grooming. Spike and Mikey argued again before Williams’ warning separated them. The aging king and his future heir then sat at each other’s feet, eyeing each other warily.
Soon sated, the monkeys climbed back into their trees to spend another night in their unexpected realm, paying no heed to the noisy metallic birds flying overhead.